OYOP: For the Love of Pai, Thailand.
There comes a point in long-term travel that you hit a wall of fatigue and homesickness. Sights and cities start to blend together. Conversations with other travelers start to feel redundant. It sounds impossible, to have new experiences each day, and for that to feel dull or exhausting, but it happens.
We were crammed in a mini-van with 10 other passengers, on our way to Pai, a small town in northern Thailand. For 3 hours, the driver sped haphazardly in the rain around mountain bends, slightly skidding on the roads. I held on to a handrail with one hand as I swayed left or right at each turn, and with the other hand, I held my stomach which had turned queasy from car sickness. We later learned that the mini-vans are government run, and drivers are on strict timetables, making the rides notoriously unpleasant through the mountain bends.
We stopped for lunch halfway through the trip, a small rest stop in the middle of nowhere on a hillside in northern Thailand. The restroom was just a dirty, stenchy room with a hole in the ground and a bucket of water to wash it down. Options for lunch were either bagged potato chips and cookies or the one meal being served, a large vat of soup swarming with flies. With a sigh, I went for the soup. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the car ride on an empty stomach was only making me more nauseated. I took my bowl of soup to a table, only to look down and once again see dozens of tiny, full shrimp a few centimeters long with stringy legs and beady eyes staring up at me, waiting to fall apart in pieces in my soup and inevitably, end up on my spoon. I’d been here before – the rough drives, the bare bathrooms, and the questionably cleanly meals. It’s all part of traveling. But I was tired, and the thought of getting diarrhea for about the dozenth time on our trip from unfamiliar or unclean food made me weary.
An hour and a half later, we made it to Pai. The mini-van dropped us off at the bus station, and all of the passengers grabbed their nearly identical Osprey backpacks from the top of the van and started off on short walks to their guesthouses or hostels. Most of the visitors here are backpackers, soaking up the relaxed vibe during the day and the party scene at night. We started down Pai Walking Street, the main strip for shops and restaurants, which we later learned turns magical at night with endless street food, artisans, and activity.
We arrived at Oasis Pai, a modest 4-room guesthouse about a kilometer outside of town, and met the owner, Connor, a 40-something year old British guy who’d moved to Thailand with his Thai wife and had been running a guesthouse in Pai for a couple of years. He was one of those owners you hope to meet at an accommodation in a new town. He sat down with us for about an hour, telling us all about town and answering our questions, sharing a bit about his life and asking about our travels. He set us up with a motorbike for 300 Baht ($8.50) for the entire 2 days and 3 nights we’d be staying, and we settled in.
The town of Pai and the surrounding countryside are what I had in mind as quintessential Southeast Asia before we’d arrived. Lazy streets are sprinkled with pedestrians and motorbikes. Just about everyone is on a motorbike: local families with small children, tourists, even locals with their dogs, riding with two paws on the seat and two paws on a handlebar. Open-air shops filled with colorful clothing line the streets. Restaurants serve up red, yellow, and green curries and endless menus of fresh fruit shakes. And just outside of the few busy streets are the outskirts, hilly roads with sweeping views of mountains, rice fields, and lush valleys. It’s enough to blow anyone away, from a novice traveler to a weary one.
We spent our days in Pai riding a motorbike around outside of town to see natural beauty in the area. Besides the freedom, motorbiking also offers a chance to feel the wind, otherwise rare in the consistently hot and humid summer. It is the wet season in the summer, the offseason, and Pai is not at all crowded. Long breaks at waterfalls or hot springs offer the chance to meet other travelers but not feel packed. Rainstorms come and go, but none last long enough to hinder plans, and most are a welcome relief from the heat.
A couple of days in Pai is enough to soak up the town and not miss anything, but we found that many people stay just to relax, to break from traveling and the crowds in other cities while being surrounded by stunning beauty. We would move on, however. We’d just spent a couple days feeling refreshed in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai and we were headed back to the city for a little bit more time there and to get up close and personal with Thailand’s favorite animal – the elephant.